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How the three phases of automation dictate human employment

Automation might end human employment as we know it. The final result is in question, but we can draw clues from the relationship between automation and employment.

I have faith in automation in all its forms and look forward to the day when AI and machine learning make it obsolete to work for a buck.

Yet, others worry about a different future, where automation takes over completely and most humans are left on the sidelines and live a life of meager sustenance, subject to technology they cannot hope to master.

It could go either way or land somewhere in the middle. There does seem to be a pattern in play that describes how automation proliferates in relation to human activity. This pattern might provide some insight as to where we are going in an increasingly automated world and what it will be like when we get there. I call this pattern the three phases of automation. The first phase is enhancement, the second phase is assistance and the final phase is replacement.

Enhancement. In the first phase, automation extends a human's abilities, but it still requires a human to do its work.

Assistance. In the second phase, automation acts independently of a human, but is still subject to the authority of a human.

Replacement. In the third phase, automation is completely independent of human authority and supervision.

A tidy automation technology example

Consider an example of this progression as it applies to a piece of automation technology from the past: vacuum cleaners.

In another day, the vacuum cleaner was a game changer. Before vacuum cleaners came along, you cleaned a carpet by hanging it outside and literally beating the dirt out of it. The vacuum cleaner, on the other hand, automatically sucked the dirt out of the carpet. For all intents and purpose, the vacuum cleaner enhanced human activity, but the device still needed a human to run it in order to work.

machine automation
Automation looms over the future of human employment.

Today, we have robotic vacuums. They can run along a floor and suck up dirt all day long -- or until the batteries run out -- no human direction required. Robotic vacuums are a perfect assistant for office cleaning crews. A human turns the robotic vacuum on to clean the office floors while he or she does other chores. In this case, automation serves as an assistant to the human.

Now, imagine a robotic device that has the wherewithal to travel the halls of an office building and move between floors using the elevator. The robot downloads a list of offices to clean. Then it goes to an office and gains entry by interacting directly with the security system at the front door. The robot vacuums the office and, upon completion, uses the office's Wi-Fi to report task status back to some sort of monitoring intelligence. The robot moves on to the next office that needs vacuuming. In this case, automation replaces human activity. Is this happening yet? Well, almost.

DevOps and the three phases of automation

These three phases of automation are not just confined to automation hardware. The pattern shows up consistently in DevOps. Take code deployment, for example.

At what point will the rate of job replacement due to automation outpace the rate of new job creation?

Way back before DevOps, when a developer needed to deploy code, he or she put the code in a source control management (SCM) system. A message was then sent to release management to deploy the code. Release management pulled the code from the SCM and sent it on its way. The SCM system could eventually automate version control of the code and automate email communication between parties. The SCM and email technologies enhanced the human activities involved with the deployment process.

Time marches forward, and with DevOps automation in full swing, the deployment process kicks off with a code commit. It's not necessary to send email between parties. However, the human must test and approve the code before it reaches its final destination in the deployment process. Automation is now in the assistance phase.

Finally, automation capabilities become so advanced that they control the entire deployment process. Once code is committed, it's tested. If the code passes through testing, it's automatically sent out to production. Automation serves as its own authority. At this phase, automation replaces human activity.

The road ahead for automation and employment

The replacement of human activity with automation is not an immediate event. Rather, it happens over time, more or less in the manner I described.

I am concerned as to how society will accommodate the increasingly rapid displacement of human labor by automation. There are those that say that as automation replaces one type of job, it creates new ones. This assertion is valid, but there is still cause for concern. At what point will the rate of job replacement due to automation outpace the rate of new job creation?

This proliferation of automation will not necessarily mean the end of human employment as we know it. But the fact that a pattern exists means we can make some predictions. Unless the world's power grid fails en masse, we will continue, maybe even accelerate the replacement of human labor.

We can do nothing and hope that things will work out for the better, or we can devise ways to meet the challenges of the fully automated world. There's an old saying in the life insurance business: It's not that most people don't plan to fail, it's that they fail to plan.

It's something to think about.

This was last published in June 2018

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How do you think automation and employment will play out in the coming years?
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Great example of robotic vacuum cleaners to illustrate the AI advancement in stages. it is intriguing to think of during the replacement stage, where if vacuuming robots are autonomously making decisions and self-correcting the clean-up routines, that will be a stage, where will humans be even required to be in office? How will the work in that world even look like?
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I know, I struggle as I imagine this type of future.
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